It's been a while since AN has checked in with MLB.com's Mychael Urban. I figured it was about time to hear from the guy who knows Barry Zito better than any of us ever will.
Blez: This team has undergone quite the transformation. Did you ever expect it to be so dramatic?
Mychael Urban: No way. And anyone who says they expected this is lying or high. I definitely expected them to improve as they got healthier and as the youngsters worked through inevitable "growing pains," but I saw it being a gradual improvement. Instead, it's like they woke up one day and, poof! They're a very good team.
Blez: What factors do you attribute it to?
Urban: Well, as I alluded, health has been a huge factor. Oakland's roster over the past five or six years has never been one that could afford multiple injuries, and that's what they got early this year. At various times they were without their star shortstop (Bobby Crosby), their best three setup men (Kiko Calero, Justin Duchscherer, Chad Bradford), their options 1 and 2 at closer (Octavio Dotel, Huston Street), one of their starting outfielders (Nick Swisher), their ace righty starter (Rich Harden) and their designated hitter (Erubiel Durazo). Geez, now that I see that all in black and white, how the hell did they pull this off? I don't think ANY team in baseball could have withstood that kind of decimation and stayed in the hunt.
Blez: Much of the team's rise has come since Bobby Crosby has come back. Can one player make that much difference?
Urban: Absolutely. It's no coincidence that the team started playing better as soon as Bobby got back. This was a team starving for formidable right-handed bats to begin with, and losing one of their best was a major blow. When he came back, it balanced out the lineup and moved some people into spots they're better suited for. And that he came back hitting so well that they've moved him into the middle of the order a year or two ahead of schedule is remarkable to me. His defense has been an underrated factor in the resurgence, too. Nothing against Marco Scutaro, who did OK while Bobby was out, but Bobby is obviously better, and his mere presence -- in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse -- gave the A's an energizing B-12 (B-7?) shot they sorely needed.
Blez: The trading deadline is nine days away now. Any guesses as to what the A's front office might have up its sleeve?
Urban: Billy has been around a lot less this year, so we don't get a chance to pick his brain as often. And I'm not one to pester him with phone calls and risk ruining a pretty good relationship, so I really have no clue as to what he's thinking. I don't really have any guesses, but I will tell you what I'd do: Wait until a day or so before the deadline and absolutely hose a contender who needs starting pitching in a Joe Kennedy deal. Billy likes to have what other people want at this time of the year, and Kennedy was a wanted man before the A's got him. So flip him, and maybe throw Keith Ginter in, to get whatever right-handed pop is out there. If that power isn't out there, rob someone of some top prospects who might be useful as either players or trading chips down the line. Why Kennedy and not, say, Juan Cruz? Kennedy doesn't fit in with this team at all. Think a blonde Mark Redman. I'll leave it at that.
Blez: If you were to play GM, what would you be going after - what do the A's need?
Urban: I think I just answered that. But hey, while I'm GM, I'd get the black uniform tops back into the mix, make high socks mandatory and add a beer tap in the press box. Oh, and I'd fire Macha. JUST KIDDING. I think Macha deserves an extension, and so does every single person in the clubhouse.
Blez: You know Zito better than most. Why has Z suddenly become consistent again?
Urban: This will probably come as a huge shocker: It's all mental. Yes, the two-seam fastball and the slider and the cutter have helped. But the biggest thing with Barry has always been and will always be confidence. When he's confident, he pounds the strike zone and attacks hitters, which means he trusts that his stuff is good enough to get anyone out. And when he attacks, he tends to throw more strikes, which obviously makes a world of difference. When his confidence is sagging -- and don't ask me why it does on occasion, because I had this chat with him last night and he has no idea, either -- he nibbles and falls behind. Right now, Barry is as confident as I've ever seen him. He knows he's badass, and you can see it in his body language on the mound. He walks around like he owns it -- like Huddy -- and right now, he does.
Blez: Is Harden the best pitcher in the American League already?
Urban: He is right now. Today. This month. But I'd stop short of saying he's the best in the AL, period. You have to get it done over a few years to earn that title. Even Johan Santana, who was basically God last year, has come back to earth, and it's possible that Rich will, too. But as of this moment, yes, I think he's the best in the league. Not in all of baseball, though. Roger Clemens and Chris Carpenter are, in fact, co-God right now.
Blez: This team is depending heavily on young guys like Johnson, Swisher, Haren, Blanton, Street and Crosby. Do you think that some of these guys will run out gas going down the stretch - particularly Blanton and Haren because of all the innings pitched?
Urban: The only guy I'd be a little concerned about is Blanton. He's never thrown 200 innings, and he's not exactly Jack LaLane. Haren hasn't thrown 200 innings, either, but he's in great shape and he pitched all the way into late October last year, so I think he'll hold up. Street is a friggin physical marvel, and the A's have the luxury of giving him a day off here and there as they did last night, so he'll be fine, too. Johnson, Swisher and Crosby don't concern me at all. They're young studs who take great care of themseves. They can rest in November.
Blez: Who has been the team MVP in your opinion?
Urban: All the haters out there are going to accuse me of favoritism here, but my pick is Zito. He's made every start, he's pitched extremely well with the exception of a few games, and his impact on the young pitchers has been profound. Dan Haren flat-out gives Zito every ounce of credit for his turnaround, Harden admits to being inspired by Zito's work ethic and preparation, and Street gushes about how much Zito has taught him. So add that up: Zito, aside from being phenomenal himself during the team's turnaround, has had a dramatic positive impact on the No. 2 and 3 starters and the closer. That's the four top pitchers on the team. What wins championships? Pitching. That's why he's my pick. If I had to pick a co-MVP, it'd be Crosby.
Blez: The A's offense still isn't recognized as a good one yet, yet after tonight it's scored more runs than the much-ballyhooed Angels offense. How do you view this offense?
Urban: It is what it is. A bunch of scrappers who hit in fits and starts. It's not great, mainly because of the lack of power, but it's not that bad. I really like Jay Payton's bat speed and think he'll prove to be a great pickup (easy for me to say that now, when he's hitting 1.200), I like the improvement Swisher and Kielty have shown, and I like the balance and versatility at Macha's disposal.
Blez: You always seem to have good stories about this team. Any good ones to share from the road? (not the Byrnes stripping one either - that's already been discussed)
Urban: The whole red-eye thing was hilarious. When Rich Harden put those colored contacts in, he pretty much freaked everyone out. He looked like that dude in Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" video. His pupils made him look like the devil on acid, and nobody wanted to look him in the eye for fear of being banished to hell. The rest of my stories have to stay with me, unfortunately, because even though I'm not a player, I'm still of the mind that what goes on on the road stays on the road.
Blez: Let's get down to brass tacks, will this team make the playoffs?
Urban: Only if the pitching stays as strong as it's been for the past six weeks. My gut is that they'll get very close and give their fans every reason for optimism, but I still think the Angels are a more complete team, and the Wild Card is probably going to come out of the East. But I reserve the right to change my mind after the trading deadline. Billy's too good at this time of year to make any concrete judgments of his team before August 1.
On a totally unrelated note, I want to thank all of your readers who picked up "Aces" and either wrote to me or told me how much they enjoyed it. I have no idea what the sales numbers are, but the positive feedback I've gotten has made it all worthwhile. Even the haters gave me something I can use, so thanks again. See you at AN Day -- hopefully.
Blez: Oh, you'll see us there. Thanks, Mychael, we appreciate your time.